Why are the middle classes so obsessed with schools?

One thing I love about my adopted country is the widespread cultural contempt for dullness. Unlike North Americans, intelligent British people rarely drone on in a witless or self-aggrandising manner. They deflect, make jokes and generally aim to please. But there is one boring subject no one here ever seems to tire of and that is schooling. One Canadian speaks out in The Spectator.

‘So where do your kids go?’ I’ve learned is just as loaded and inescapable a London dinner party question as ‘What do you do?’ or ‘Where are you on Brexit?’

If you choose private, you’d better have a plausible explanation (e.g. ‘We just didn’t want to make our child the social experiment’). And if you choose state, you’d better mention how ‘absolutely brilliant’ the school is, lest anyone think you didn’t put years of thought and research into the decision.

But where I live, in a semi-gentrified patch of north-west London, taking a blasé attitude to schooling is tantamount to an extreme form of child neglect. Breeders round here — as in most middle-class enclaves in Britain — seem to assume that all responsible parents should be tied up in knots over the question. Mothers, in particular, are expected to be consumed with educational anxiety — to lose sleep fretting and devote a significant portion of our waking hours into researching and discussing the question of schools with our friends and neighbours. The system is ‘competitive’, I’ve been told, and it’s important to strive for the best to ensure our children don’t get ‘left behind’. (Where are they going to get left? In the pub? Would that be so bad?)

I’d chalk it all up to virtue signalling and competitive anxiety if I hadn’t watched so many people turn their lives upside down over it. For instance, it is not uncommon for otherwise reasonable people in my postcode to do the following in pursuit of a ‘good’ school place:

1) Spend two years or more attending church while not believing in God even the teeniest tiniest bit.
2) Move house to get into a ‘better’ catchment area.
3) Take out loans to afford private tuition.
4) Take out a second or third mortgage to afford private tuition.
5) Take a year-long sabbatical from work to help their child prepare for the 11 plus.
6) Have one parent (invariably the mother) stop work altogether to ‘support the process’ of finding/getting into the right school.

Here in the UK, it’s normal for parents to take on all the responsibility for their kids’ schooling. We’re happy to do so because it’s received truth that school choice matters deeply for our children, far more than other factors like economic advantage, family culture and genetics. Why else would the chattering classes spend so much time freaking out about it?

In fact, almost all major research disputes this. This is not to say that school choice doesn’t matter — just that it’s a factor among many others. If you’re poor, academic achievement can still be a ticket to a better life — but for most well-supported middle-class kids in Britain today, what school they go to will not make a huge difference in the long run.

One of the reasons I find the British obsession with education curious is because I don’t really have a dog in the fight. It doesn’t offend me if rich people send their kids to private schools or religious people send their kids to religious schools. I know there are huge societal issues at stake and that education is the engine of social mobility etc, but on a superficial dinner party level, I don’t really care. What I do worry about is not dying of boredom before my youngest goes off to uni.

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